Elite vs rest of the world
Since my first experiences as a youthful spectator of professional cycling watching Gianni Bugno win the 1990 Wincanton Classic in Brighton, I have been fascinated by what it takes for performance cycling passionistas like us to achieve elite status and I am still learning how the process can be accelerated for all of us, with precious little time available. I entered this world overlooking Richmond Park, now the cycling ‘hot spot’ of London and the South-East, or even dare I say the UK, like it or not. Will have to check the Strava heat map for that official title. No, my entry into this world didn’t take place at the top of Broomfield Hill, but in a slightly more sterile Kingston Hospital just a stones throw away. So I realised my aspirations to become an amateur racer were acquired congenitally, either that or I influenced the location of mass cycling practice at an early age.
Inter-winding the two fascinations in my life have been my main extra-curricular activities, to push my body to its natural limits, and the other, understanding how I can make the first one possible in my limited spare time. Luckily my vocational occupation overlapped nicely. Physiology and biochemistry share much common ground, including metabolism. Every other research article at work I read on company hours was based on current trends in applied exercise physiology. All I had to do was apply the relevant aspects to myself, and I would be at super quick ‘elite’ standard in no time, easy right! Hindsight is a particularly unique thing, with all the trial and error necessary in my training, I realised after a few years that ironically it was my own stubbornness with not doing what I needed to do even as part of a team, that hindered the rate of my progression. I didn’t possess true objectivity and couldn’t carry out self-prescribed work-outs as required. Avoiding intense efforts due to not being rested enough, or going too hard when needing to recover was as an ego thing……I wasted a lot of time trying to get close to the level I wanted to achieve but consciously suppressing my ability. A lot of this stemmed from not reading my body well enough, with no power meter or heart rate monitor to gauge effort, I was going round in circles quite literally on many rides, not making the most of the miles, or laps of THE park or sessions in the gym. Although I now sometimes feel that this was supposed to be part of the process, like a rite of passage, learning when, what and how much to do….I soon realised that this can be optimised and streamlined for everyone, with just the right dose of objectivity we can develop a more practical sense of our response to training and add purpose to all our training.
I was recently invited to the GSK Human Performance Lab where they colloborate with endurance athletes (including the likes of the Brownlees) and support their athletic development (much like myself, but on a slightly bigger scale), and witnessed one of their elite partners under study. This fully equipped laboratory must be one of ‘the’ most state-of-the-art facilities in the UK, with all the advanced equipment for measuring and assessing strength, stamina, cognition, hydration, metabolism, recovery (their six pillars of endurance sport), and I felt like a kid in a toy shop at Christmas. A full monty DEXA scanner (x-ray emission body composition analysis), infinity pool with ventilatory assessment for swimmers and hot /cold recovery pools were particular highlights, not to mention a random littering of cycle ergometers throughout each lab. The visit got me thinking again, about my original questions regarding the differences between professional/ elite athletes and the rest of us. Apart from being motivated to write this post I had a delve into some of the more official research that seems to be well established.
Some athletes appear to be luckier than others, those who are genetically predisposed to recruiting ample fast twitch fibers through their normal daily activities and require less stimulus through weight bearing exercises, require more conditioning through cardio-respiratory exercise to remodel these fibres to aerobic sub-types (type I) necessary for endurance. Others need to work at gaining the right balance of muscle fibers a bit harder. However, that general conditioning can be done best on ride sessions, interval sessions and in the gym environment where it can be efficiently translated to practical use for developing specific conditioning for the cycling discipline of choice track, cross, hill climbing or grand tour! In fact, conditioning may last even longer due to a strength + endurance intervention and programme (1-3). Time to completion of distance-limited trials followed by maximal power outputs have been studied at great length, demonstrating significant improvements in overall time and average powers between well-matched groups undertaking each training modality (1-5). Even measuring levels of invasive markers, fatigue, and scoring subjective responses have been contrastingly superior with resistance training randomised to different ability (amateur to professional) endurance athletes.
Research has shown that blood lactate concentrations rise more slowly in trained cyclists compared to untrained subjects (6 – 8), which may be due to a decreased lactate formation and an increased rate of lactate removal/clearance during exercise. Furthermore, lactate accumulation in trained subjects is at a higher submaximal VO2, and at a higher percentage of VO2max. An explanation for these findings is that mitochondrial protein (number of mitochondria as well as volume of mitochondria) may increase with a two-fold factor due to endurance training, compared to a 10-20% increase in VO2max (7, 27, 28). Also, an increase in aerobic system enzymes (citric acid ‘Krebs’ cycle) may develop (6), increasing a subject’s ability to maintain a higher percentage of aerobic capacity during prolonged endurance exercise before significant blood lactate accumulation occurs. Variation in lactate profile development is explained to a substantial degree by variation in training intensity distribution in elite cyclists (33). Training at less than 2 mM blood lactate appears to play an important role in improving the power output to blood lactate relationship, which correlates well with the endurance and tempo zones. Excessive training near threshold intensity (3-6 mM blood lactate) may negatively impact lactate threshold development (9).
Many research articles have compared strength and endurance vs endurance training alone (1-6). Resistance training is a game leveller for those new to the sport, coming from a period of de-conditioning, or over-training even, through rehabilitation weight bearing exercise. But it also provides a great advantage to those with restricted training time, and is part of the natural periodisation process for a number of reasons.
Resistance training performed with sequential phases of periodisation training mimicks the high load stress that more well-trained/ elite and professional athletes have both exposed themselves to and are capable of sustaining due to their ability to tolerate greater training intensities. Basically they are able to endure greater amounts of very high stress and volumes of training to their neuromuscular system that is not immediately achievable to less-trained individuals, who are unable to tolerate either the load or frequency or duration due to the saturation of their muscle stimulation. This may sound obvious. But there lies a sliding scale, or wide gap to cross….although there are bridges which can make achieving what is thought of as a quantum leap, more realistic and feasible to amateur recreational cyclists. To make it obvious, the fast way to cross that bridge is by conditioning the muscles through resistance based exercises, sequentially through the periodisation phases to achieve what is known as ‘transference’ to cycling specific endurance most optimally through interval training, at a higher ability level than the starting point. Of course this is best done when endurance training volume is low, as during the winter months. Focusing on getting the right balance of muscle fibres can be achieved through specific exercises, repetitions and relative loads.
Differences between elite and professional cyclists physiological characteristics have also been measured, including an increased electromyographical threshold (EMGT) activity, which is an invasive look into the electrical firing pattern of muscle fibres. The higher mileage of professional cyclists has a large effect on the percentage of type I muscle fibres. Since these muscle fibres are highly dependent on fat metabolism, carbohydrates oxidation can be spared. This higher oxidative capacity of professionals has an influence on different parameters, such as VO2, VO2max, lactate production and removal, fatmax (* see note below), cycling economy and cycling efficiency. Regarding the differences between professional and amateur cyclists, it has been shown that professionals have significantly lower blood lactate concentrations at submaximal (11) and maximal intensities (higher than 300 W) (10, 11). Furthermore, professional cyclists show significantly higher VO2, %VO2max and power output (W) before lactate accumulation occurs (10, 12, 25), indicating a greater ability to work at higher intensities before lactate accumulation. A rightward shift of the LT’s to a higher power output, is a characteristic of a successful training program (13). This means that a higher exercise intensity can be maintained without accumulation of blood lactate, indicating that endurance capacity has improved. The better performances of the professionals can be explained by the fact that they have a higher capacity for oxidative metabolism (more type 1 muscle fibres and higher oxidative enzymes activity) (11, 12) and a higher capillary density (12). Another explanation that was given was attributed to the fact that professional cyclists may be better able to exert force during the knee-flexion phase of cycling (11); in other words, they appear to pull the pedal up more vigorously during cycling compared to their amateur colleagues. This means that knee extensor work during cycling can be reduced, and consequently, anaerobic oxidation occurs at a lower rate. Furthermore, professional cyclists show significantly better mechanical efficiency at submaximal and maximal exercise intensities compared to their amateur colleagues. Improvements in gross efficiency (GE) are widely accepted as an important factor that determines cycling performance, and these improvements of GE at the lactate threshold are more reliable in predicting endurance performance than improvements in VO2max (14, 25, 29, 30).
Several explanations can be given for the improvements in cycling economy and efficiency between professionals and elites.
Firstly, professional cyclists may have a higher percentage of type 1 muscle fibres (12), resulting in a higher oxidative capacity (15,35). Thus, cycling economy and efficiency can increase throughout the cycling career of an individual (31,32). Although anaerobic and aerobic systems are not mutually exclusive (37), i.e. there is a fundamental overlap between energy systems over all intensities of exercise, a well developed aerobic capacity allows for fatigue to occur at a slower rate than would occur anaerobically without oxygen. It is the conditioning of the anaerobic fibers to tolerate and utilise lactate aerobically and buffer [H+] (high levels of [H+] causes acidosis, one of the main mechanisms for muscle failure along with ATP depletion) which provides an advantage over less mechanically efficient or less oxygen economic athletes (24, 39). Thus, increased lactate production coincides with cellular acidosis and can be regarded as a good indirect marker for cell metabolic conditions that induce metabolic acidosis (16, 37, 38). As we know lactate helps to delay the onset of a metabolic acidosis, thereby improving endurance performance (14, 16, 39).
Secondly, professional cyclists tend to show a higher amount of oxidative enzymes (oxidative capacity) and lower Lactate Dehydrogenase activity (12), however both not significantly. The lower LDH activity may indicate a better fitness state, because aerobic oxidation of pyruvate occurs at a higher rate due to the higher oxidative capacity, and less pyruvate needs to be converted into lactate. The increased oxidative capacity results in a higher (important) reliance on fat metabolism (lower respiratory quotient), even at high power outputs (11). A third explanation for the better efficiency in professionals is the lack of tachypnoeic shift in professional cyclists, indicating that their respiratory muscles work more efficiently in both mechanical and metabolic terms (21).
Strength training is now very much regarded as a mechanism to improve the metabolic quality of muscle tissue, an easy way to recruit more fibers through hypertrophy and condition these as to optimise the anaerobic/ aerobic balance (which positively affects the lactate threshold). This would otherwise take many seasons of competitive cycling at very high intensities to promote neuromuscular adaptation and at much lower intensities to stimulate improvements in aerobic efficiency and capacity. However, strength training alone is not the only solution, but needs to be performed in combination with a well structured and complimentary endurance plan, to really exploit the full potential of ones physiology. Perhaps its time to stop riding so much and start pushing those muscles to new limits! The only risk might be that you start to look and ride like a pro.
*Professional road cyclists rely significantly more on fat oxidation, even at high power outputs (22, 11). As previously mentioned, this higher rate of fat oxidation can be explained by a higher percentage of type 1 muscle fibres. Fat that is oxidized during exercise, originates mainly from intramuscular triglycerides (IMTG) and blood plasma (derived from adipose tissue and diet). Which substrate is being oxidized at a certain time point depends on several factors. Generally, the main determinants of fuel selection are exercise intensity and exercise volume. Also, someone’s nutrition and fitness state are of importance; trained individuals oxidize more fat at a given power output than untrained individuals (23), probably due to the higher percentage of type I muscle fibres and higher oxidative capacity as mentioned before. During high intensity exercise, the human body oxidizes relatively more carbohydrates than fat, in order to generate energy more quickly. However, absolute fat oxidation also increases during exercise compared to resting values. From low to moderate exercise intensity, absolute fat oxidation increases; during moderate to high exercise intensity, carbohydrates oxidation progressively increases and fat oxidation declines. Generally, the highest rates of absolute fat oxidation (Fatmax) occur at exercise intensities of approximately 50-70% of VO2max.
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